Barack and Bibi: Treading Water?
Israeli Prime Minister Benyimin (Bibi) Netanyahou is coming calling to the White House tomorrow. After the self-flagellation of delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame, it may seem a relief for Obama. Alternately, of course, it could produce a second Excedrin headache. If reports in advance are at all accurate, the two men will avoid serious discussions of the serious differences between them, leaving the meeting little more than a photo opportunity wherein the two leaders circle and assess one another in the shallow end of the pool, treading water.
There are two enormous issues dividing the two countries and on which the two leaders have taken diametrically opposing positions. The major, enduring difference, of course, is the fate of Palestine. Obama has taken the strong position that a two-state solution (separate Israeli and Palestinian states) is the only outcome that satisfies the United States; Netanyahou’s whole political life has been dedicated to the creation of Greater Israel, an Israeli state that encompasses the West Bank that is the location of the Palestinian state. These are mutually exclusive visions, and the resolutions are zero-sum (one side loses what the other side loses). One can argue that meaningful compromise is possible in this situation only at considerable ignorance of the facts. The result of discussions about this tomorrow will be a loud, clear mumble.
The other issue, of course, is the Iranian nuclear problem. Here, the goals of both states are the same: no Iranian nukes. The problem is how to maintain that position. The United States wants to negotiate with the Iranians, while the Israelis threaten them with military action the United States opposes. Once again, the positions are hardly reconcilable, even if the end result is the same. Expect there to be a statement that deplores the the prospect of Iran getting nuclear weapons followed by another loud, clear mumble about how to insure that outcome.
This new American-Israeli discord is one of the major changes in foreign policy from the Bush to the Obama incumbencies. Under Bush, U.S. policy was pretty much whatever the Israelis wanted, and Netanyahou must be looking back with some nostalgia at the halycon days. It is not so much that the Obama team is anti-Israeli as it is not uncritically pro-Likud, which Bush was. Netanyahou apparently understands this, which is why he has been notably quiet recently on the issues that divide the two countries. Israel, after all, needs the United States a whole lot more than the United States needs Israel, and that provides some leverage for the Obama team, which has added reconciliation with the Islamic Middle East to its goals in the region. Some see this as anti-Israeli. I do not. Rather, it reflects a different approach to and vision of how Israel and its neighbors can learn to coexist. It is the basis for a healthier debate than is generally held in this country.
Most of these basic fissures will apparently not be raised, certainly not in public. What goes on behind closed doors may be more frank, but in a manner certainlt unusual for contemporary Washington politics, “what is said in the Oval Office stays in the Oval Office.” For the public, the meeting will be two leaders bobbing around in the White House pool, treading water.